“Ms. Marvel” Keeps the Change

by Matthew Derman

13 November 2014

The reason Ms. Marvel is so capable of dealing with the enormous shifts in her life is that, underneath all of her typical teenage fear and doubt, she very much knows who she is.

There is a lot about G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, and Ian Herring’s current Ms. Marvel series to recommend it. One of its best attributes is that it’s loads of fun—playful in both its story and art, full of organic humor, and starring a character who maintains a childlike sense of adventure in the face of great deal of unpleasantness and danger. The series has also got a deliberate throwback feel to it, yet it is still very much of its time. The protagonist, Kamala Khan, is a Pakistani-American Muslim girl, about as atypical a mainstream superhero as you can find, but her story hits many of the traditional superhero beats. An accident (combined with her special biology) that gives her powers, the awkward period where she learns how to use them, the creation of her first costume, the development of her first nemesis, etc. These are all elements that have been seen in countless narratives before, and Ms. Marvel doesn’t necessarily even put too much of a new spin on them, letting them instead remain recognizable while the originality of the main character and her very modern take on things adds freshness and unpredictability. Kamala is just as familiar with the tropes of superhero tales as anyone, and openly acknowledges them when they exist in her own life; it is the way she handles them that makes the comic click.

The fun-loving nature of the series, as well as the combination of old-school and updated attitudes towards superheroics, are reasons for comicbook fans specifically to pick it up, things that make it stand out from the other titles on the shelves. There is, however, a more universal appeal to this book, too, an underlying theme that anyone can appreciate and even learn from. Because Ms. Marvel is about how people handle change, and change is an inescapable fact of all our lives. Kamala doesn’t always make the best possible choices, but her overall approach to dealing with the many major shake-ups in her life is admirable, healthy, and impressive. She’s an example of how to keep ahold of your identity in the midst of the world’s chaos, how to keep yourself from being overly influenced by external forces. Rather than letting the sudden changes to her reality redefine her, Kamala figures out how to fold them into and/or filter them through her established sense of self, so that she can remain intact while still growing into and living with her new status quo.

Kamala doesn’t exactly enjoy change, nor is she impervious to being rattled by it. When she first gets her powers, for example, she accidentally disguises herself as Carol Danvers, the former Ms. Marvel/current Captain Marvel and one of Kamala’s idols. At first, looking like Danvers is merely a side effect of Kamala not fully understanding her abilities yet, and later on it becomes a defense mechanism of sorts, a way for Kamala to play hero without having to admit to herself that she is in fact becoming a hero. Before long, though, Kamala realizes that she can be Ms. Marvel without needing to hide behind her predecessor’s appearance, that simply being brave enough to use her powers for good qualifies her to have the moniker. She may be following in Danvers’ footsteps and honoring her legacy, but that’s no reason to erase Kamala entirely.

The conscious realization that she can have her own look is only part of the picture, though. Even before Kamala drops her Danvers disguise, on the same night that she first gets her powers, it is her own past, her upbringing and her moral fiber that make her act heroically with her newfound abilities. Seeing a drunken classmate fall into the water, Kamala remembers a saying from the Quran that her father taught her, “Whoever kills one person, it is as if he has killed all of mankind, and whoever saves one person, it is as if he has saved all of mankind.” Recalling this phrase, Kamala rushes in to rescue the girl in the water, and does so almost reflexively. When push comes to shove, it is not Danvers’ influence that ultimately urges Kamala to act but her father’s, an early example in a long list displaying how Kamala’s strong sense of self helps her deal with huge change. Suddenly gaining superpowers could well have overwhelmed Kamala’s mind and dominated her attention, but instead she made immediate use of those powers instinctively because of the kind of person she already was, the values she already held.

It is not just gaining powers that Kamala has to adjust to. Over the course of the nine issues of Ms. Marvel that have been published thus far, she has uncovered a new villain and built a solid rivalry with him (the nature of which has changed a few times), learned that she has Inhuman ancestry, earned a certain local notoriety in her hometown of Jersey City, and had her powers fundamentally change. While originally she could alter her shape to look however she wanted, Kamala recently learned that another of her powers, her advanced healing, is slowly removing her ability to shapeshift every time she uses it. The more she heals, the less she can change her form. It’s not something she’s happy to hear, but like with all of the things I just mentioned, she rolls with it. Not always as gracefully as might be ideal—she’s young and she’s trying to keep her Ms. Marvel activities a secret from her family, which creates a lot of friction—but she always makes it through in one piece. The more change she encounters, the less it phases her, meaning Kamala has started to grow fairly fearless. She may not know what’s coming, but she’s confident now that she can take it.

The reason Kamala is so capable of dealing with the enormous shifts in her life is that, underneath all of her typical teenage fear and doubt, and in spite of a few stumbles along the way, she very much knows who she is. She possesses an intrinsic self-assuredness, and even when she second-guesses her decisions, she ends up making the right ones when it counts because she’s a naturally good, intelligent, empathetic person who genuinely wants to help. That’s what drives her, and whatever distractions or obstacles end up in her path, she can overcome them by staying true to her gut feelings, by being honest with herself about what she wants in any given situation. Therein lies the heart of Kamala as a hero and Ms. Marvel as a series, this idea that trusting yourself, knowing what you can do and going after what you believe is right, these are the things that make life’s inevitable changes manageable.

Kamala’s tale does not map directly onto anyone’s real life. Her primary villain is (he claims) a clone of Thomas Edison with a dash of cockatiel DNA, so it’s not like we can all relate to the specifics of her experience. Not everybody has to deal with changes that are as large as superpowers and Inhumanity, either, but everyone does see their lives shift dramatically in one way or another. That’s just the nature of moving linearly through time; eventually, you’re going to experience something that changes the world around you and/or the way you see it. In those moments, the question becomes, does the change take the reins for us and become all we can see, or do we drive ourselves through it and keep our sights focused on who we are, rather than what surrounds us?

Kamala easily could’ve let the bottom drop out when she first realized she had powers, going irreversibly insane or otherwise breaking down. When she figured out the real size of the threat represented by birdman Thomas Edison, she could’ve bowed out of the fight, letting herself be intimidated by him and handing the job of defeating him over to more experienced heroes (a few of whom have even offered to help). When Lockjaw, the Inhumans’ awesome giant teleporting dog, suddenly came into her life, Kamala could’ve been shocked and terrified by his size like pretty everyone else who saw him was. She’s had many opportunities to be bested by change, is my point, but every time, she’s stuck to her guns and let her instincts and her inner decency guide her.

There’s one other important aspect of Kamala’s character that allows her to handle her situation with such aplomb: she loves superheroes. She was a self-proclaimed superhero nerd long before she got powers of her own, an active participant in an online fanfic community and a generally obsessed fan of the Avengers and Carol Danvers in particular. This means that even when her life is at risk or her friends are in danger or any other worst-case scenarios arise, some part of Kamala is happy to be living her dream. To some degree, she finds pleasure in all of it, the good and the bad, because it’s all part of a lifestyle she’s always been attracted to and never before truly believed she could live. Not everyone gets to be so lucky with the changes in their lives, but I do think there’s still a valuable lesson in this detail of Kamala’s story. Finding things to invest in, having hobbies and interests and obsessions, can be helpful when it comes to coping with change. These things keep us in touch with ourselves; they act as anchors we can return to if we ever feel lost or adrift. Kamala was fortunate in that her hobby and her major life change were connected, but anyone can benefit from having something to hold onto, a source of reliable comfort for when the world offers up a surprise.

Ms. Marvel is an important comicbook for numerous reasons, many of which are tied directly to Kamala’s identity. Equally important, then, is the fact that she so consistently relies on that identity, and her own intimate understanding of it, to be her compass when change comes her way. Seeing her refuse to bend under the force of that change is a big part what makes her such a compelling superhero, and it’s also one of the most significant messages Ms. Marvel delivers.


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